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Slump takes Stafford's breath away

It's the same in all sports, really. When you're hot, your eyes get big and the target seems to get larger. The basketball hoop is wide as the ocean. The pitch comes toward the plate looking like a beach ball.

"Yeah, absolutely," Drew Stafford said Monday before the Sabres' 4-2 win over the Capitals in First Niagara Center. "The golf hole gets bigger when you're on your game, like Tiger. You have that extra boost, that confidence, that when you shoot the puck, you know it's going to go in."

And when you struggle?

"When things aren't going well, the net does get a little smaller," Stafford said. "The goalie gets a little bigger. Goalies are bigger, anyway. But it's definitely like that. That's part of the mental challenge."

Lately, the net has seemed smaller than a matchbook for Stafford. Last year, he had a career-high 31 goals in 62 games. He had four hat tricks. But the 26-year-old right wing has struggled to find his goal-scoring touch this season. He has six goals in 34 games.

Stafford didn't score Monday, but the net got bigger for his teammates. They scored three goals on six shots in the first 8:45 and knocked out Michal Neuvirth. Stafford set up the opening goal 51 seconds in, making a gorgeous feed to Jason Pominville for an easy shot.

"I was going to shoot," Stafford said, "but I saw Pommer wide open. Their D man kind of committed on me, so I dropped the shoulder and made the quick play to Pommer for the tap-in. I had a couple more chances later.

"If I was going to be in the position again," he said with a laugh, "I probably would have shot it."

Midway through the third, Stafford brought the crowd to its feet on a rink-long rush. It was reminiscent of a play here against the Caps late in his rookie season, when he faked a defenseman out of the building. He scored that night.

"You got it," he said of the goal in '07. "I'm coming close. It all starts with speed. The next part is putting it in. Hopefully, the next one's going in."

Stafford has two goals in his last 22 games, not what Terry Pegula had in mind when he gave him a four-year, $16 million contract last June. Money creates pressure, which intensifies when a team loses players to injury.

Too much thinking can disrupt a natural, athletic rhythm. When you're in the zone, your actions become instinctive, immune to pressure.

"Exactly," Stafford said. "You don't have any doubts. It's like a flow. You just have it and you go out. It's intense, but you also have a focus about you. When things are going well, you're in that state of mind. When they aren't, the challenge is to get back there.

"The only way to do that is extra focus," he said. "You simplify things again. Get back to breathing. Get back to relaxing. You're almost thinking too much. You grip the stick too tight. You're not breathing."

Stafford said tension can literally take your breath away. But you keep working and skating, keep your focus and things will eventually go your way.

It's tougher when you sign a big contract. Stafford knows the critics are out there. He's one of them. Before the 2010-11 season, he admitted that he hadn't been focused enough on hockey. Stafford committed himself to his profession and responded with the best season of his career.

"Yeah, you're never done," he said. "You can always get better. You can always take steps in the right direction and I felt as though I did that. But I'm not done. I'm not finished. Once you think you have it figured out, there's some big problem or new thing that's going to pop up.

"I think I'm at that point now, slowly trying to get back to where I was."

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com